Features » October 12, 2007
A Mother’s March For Justice
Jena Six mother Tina Jones talks about clearing the reputation of her son Bryant Purvis
For Tina Jones, life was plenty busy before her oldest son became one of the now famous Jena Six. Jones, a nursing assistant and mother of two boys, Bryant Purvis, 17, and Dyrek Jones, 7, has become a tireless activist since Dec. 5, 2006, when Bryant was expelled from Jena
High School in Jena, La. Working closely with the other Jena Six parents, Jones has helped organize a local chapter of the NAACP, has reached out to the local and national media, and has worked to speed up her son’s hearing and trial.
Bryant Purvis, along with five other black students, originally faced charges of attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder, after school officials alleged that the six boys attacked a white classmate and beat him unconscious. Purvis denies being involved but is now awaiting trial.
It all started when several black students sat under a tree at the high school where white students normally gathered. The next day, three nooses hung from the tree. Three months of racial tensions followed, culminating in a fight on school grounds on Dec. 4, 2006.
National support for the Jena Six has continued to grow. A rally took place in Jena on Sept. 20, with more than 15,000 protesters marching to the courthouse with the families.
As In These Times went to press, Purvis was the only member of the Jena Six yet to be arraigned. If convicted, he faces 80 years-to-life in prison. One hopeful sign is that Mychal Bell, the first of the six to be tried, had his conviction thrown out. He was released on bail on Sept. 27, after 10 months behind bars.
In These Times talked with Jones about the case that has come to resonate beyond Jena and the responsibilities she’s assumed as a civil rights spokesperson.
How would you describe your son Bryant?
Bryant was an honor student throughout his first three years of high school. He also played basketball and football, but his main thing was basketball. Hopefully, he’ll get to graduate and go to college and play basketball. If not, he wants to become a coach.
He’s also a people person. When people see his car or somebody finds out he’s here, everybody just walks over to visit.
When did you first know that your son might face legal trouble because of the events at the high school?
Bryant came home and told me that there was a fight at school and that several kids were arrested. Lo and behold, the next day when I get to work, my aunt comes and tells me that Bryant was at the courthouse. I didn’t think it was anything related to the fight. I thought something else had happened.
I rushed down there and they told me that Bryant had been charged.
You were shocked to hear Bryant was being charged. Was Bryant as surprised as you were?
He was very surprised, because he wasn’t in the fight at all. Bryant wasn’t involved in anything that led up to the fight.
It took everybody a day or two to get over the shock of what they [local law enforcement] were doing to these kids. Then the parents of the six students got together and looked online, trying to find ways to help get them out of this mess. [Local radio host] Tony Brown helped get the word out, and he found several lawyers who were interested in helping with the case. That’s how I found my lawyer.
Bryant hasn’t even been arraigned, and it’s going on a year since he was charged. My lawyer filed motions to arraign Bryant, drop the charges or produce evidence. We have a court date set for Nov. 7.
You feel the proceedings have been dragged out?
Absolutely. My lawyer feels that the authorities feel Bryant had nothing to do with the fight and are not bringing him to court because they don’t have anything to work with. We probably wouldn’t have a court date now if my lawyer hadn’t filed these motions. Other than charging him, they haven’t done anything with the case.
How has the delay affected you?
That’s a horrible feeling, to wake up every morning and know that your son has been charged with attempted murder and know that the rest of his life could be decided by a district attorney. All the help and all these people coming in to Jena makes you feel better. But at the end of the day when you go to bed, or when you wake up the next morning, those charges are still facing you. Until they go away, I’m not going to feel relief.
You have talked widely about your son’s experience and the implications it has on civil rights. Has the case become a full-time job?
It could be. We just turn down a lot of stuff. I just came back last night from Washington, D.C. The students’ parents went to the Children’s Defense Fund there. We had a panel and a discussion on the case. Everybody wants us to come in. They want to hear our story and have a question-and-answer session.
There’s something that needs to be done every day. I have a 7-year-old too. I can’t be gone all the time. They invited us to the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine [the first nine students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.]. We are supposed to do that this weekend. We were supposed to have done the Montel Williams Show this week and Dr. Phil’s show. We missed all that because all the families were in Washington. We just can’t be everywhere.
Does your younger son understand what’s going on?
I don’t know that he understands the significance. When I’ll talk to him, he’ll say, “Momma, the Jena Six stuff was on television, and they were talking about you.” I don’t sit down and talk to him about it. He’s only 7 years old. Maybe when he’s older.
After we had the rally [on Sept. 20], everybody started getting these threatening phone calls. It’s kinda scary. So if somebody’s knocking on the door, my young son Dyrek looks scared. If the phone rings, he thinks it’s one of those phone calls.
How safe do you feel right now in Jena?
I’m not going to say I feel threatened, but I am concerned. A lot of the calls, I’m sure, are pranks. But at the same time, you don’t take that stuff lightly. I’m aware of my surroundings when I go out and go places. If I feel like I need security, I will call and have someone take me where I need to go or follow me where I need to go.
Some of us have gotten hate mail. We’re all concerned about that. We’re all determined to continue on until some kind of justice is won.
As of now, Bryant is out on bail and still waiting to be arraigned. You’ve found a lawyer to represent him once charges are presented at the hearing. What do you expect to come out of the court cases?
With the eyes of the nation on this town, you’re always hopeful. They can’t just throw out any convenient excuse without us fighting or taking the necessary steps to have it overturned. It’s going to be a long, drawn-out case. I think that at the end of the day–or the end of trial–we should get some kind of justice. But it may take us a long time to get there.
When we first started this, I never dreamed in a million years that it would get this kind of attention. We were just reaching out for help. To have this blow out into a huge, huge, huge, huge, huge story is beyond me.
Sometimes I think, “What in the world have I gotten myself into?” We’re all just normal people working to make a living and take care of our kids. To be dragged into something that you really hadn’t intended to get to this point–it’s crazy. I’m hopeful it will make a difference though.
What impact did the Sept. 20 rally have?
Just to know that thousands of people were with us, supporting the cause–that was a great feeling. I hadn’t felt so happy since all this happened with my son, until this particular day.
As we were marching up to the school, if you turned around, all you could see was people. That was a beautiful sight–to see that many people behind you. Everything seemed positive about the whole ordeal.
But then you wake up Friday morning after the rally, and people are calling, looking for Bryant, threatening, calling you names. That was a setback for me. It took me a day to get over it. I thought, ‘Oh my God, is it worth this? Is it worth my life?’
Then I realized that I’m fighting for my son. I know a lot of people have lost their lives for different causes. At the end of the day, I have to keep fighting for my son regardless of how the situation turns out. They’re not going to run me into a corner.
Is there anything you would like people to know?
Just to stay behind us, support us. When we have court dates, please come out and support us. The more people we have, the more we feel we’re being supported.
If readers want to show their support for the Jena Six, Jones suggests they contact Color of Change (www.ColorOfChange.org) or the LaSalle Parish NAACP (Catrina Wallace, secretary, 318-419-6441).